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He wanted only what every journalist of the time did: an exclusive interview with the Duke of Windsor. What he got was an astonishing proposition that sent him on an urgent top-secret visit to the White House and a once-in-a-lifetime story that was too hot to print—until now.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
It was, said one of the few people who knew about it, “the greatest news story on earth.” It belonged exclusively to my father, a prolific writer, but he knew it could not be published. The story presented an appalling picture of the former King of England, the Duke of Windsor. It contained dreadful secrets, including an urgent proposal for President Franklin Roosevelt, a message so damning and dangerous that my father actually feared for his life after he had delivered it. In fact, the entire story was so explosive that an aide to Windsor warned that if what the duke had said, on that December evening in 1940, became known, “the lid would be blown off the British Empire.”
The story never appeared, but it was written. A few days after he interviewed the duke and made his report to the President, my father dictated a seventeen-page memo describing what he had seen and heard. After his death, in 1952, I found it in a notebook, tucked, like the “Purloined Letter,” among the thousands of volumes in his library. Some years later I was tempted to include it in my father’s posthumous autobiography, but others convinced me that he would not have released the memo while the duke and duchess were still living. Now that both are dead, and fifty years have passed since the interview, I believe the story should be told.
My father was an incandescent man, a Roman candle that burned in the fireworks of his time. Born in poverty, unable to finish grammar school before he took his first job as a water boy, he lived the American dream more completely and in more forms than any other person I have known.
He was a reporter, novelist, playwright, biographer, and journalist; he was an editor of magazines and newspapers; he was a screenwriter, radio scenarist, newscaster, and lecturer; he was a ventriloquist, critic, and columnist; he was a detective-story writer, psychic investigator, and criminologist. He became the confidant of politicians, Presidents (particularly FDR), and a former king.
Far too early the energy and ambition that sustained his gifts consumed him; he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine. He was then perhaps the most popular religious writer of his time.
I was nineteen when he died, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about him. It seemed impossible that a person so driven by achievement and acclaim, who was so manifestly onstage, privately and publicly, could have led a secret life. My father had also been a magician, and he loved to say that a magician never revealed his secrets. A decade after his death I discovered that for four years during World War Il he had run an undercover operation for the FBI, serving as liaison between the Bureau and a score of its agents who sabotaged Nazi networks in Latin America. No one among his family or friends knew anything about it.
I was equally astonished when I first read about his meeting with Windsor. In 1940 my father was supervising editor of the Macfadden publishing empire and editor in chief of Liberty, a popular weekly magazine. For some time he had been trying to obtain an interview with the duke for Liberty, without success. Then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, he learned that Windsor would be happy to see him. A week before Christmas he flew to Nassau with my mother and my sister, April, who was fourteen.
According to his diary, on the morning of December 19, 1940, he rose early and watched the duke and duchess step off a landing barge sent from the yacht Southern Cross. The former monarch and the woman for whom he had given up his kingdom were returning from a visit to the United States, their first since Windsor’s abdication in 1936. Tanned and smiling as they drove off to Government House, they must have offered, to anyone who thought of England that day, a startling contrast to the duke’s beleaguered countrymen.
England had barely survived the Battle of Britain that summer, and now the devastating blitz bombardments had begun. On December 13 the duke had flown from Miami on a Navy seaplane to meet with President Roosevelt, who was cruising the Caribbean aboard the USS Tuscaloosa. Aboard that ship, a few days earlier, the President had received Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s long and eloquent letter requesting aid from America. It was the plea that led to the Lend-Lease Act.
As my father watched him that morning, His Royal Highness was among the most admired men on earth. The general public remained enthralled by the story of his romance, abdication, and marriage to the former Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, now the Duchess of Windsor. But there was a huge dichotomy between the public’s perception and what many British and American officials thought about Windsor.
The Southern Cross itself was a silent symbol of suspicions that would not become a matter of broad commentary until decades after the war. The yacht belonged to Axel Wenner-Gren, a Swedish multimillionaire industrialist and entrepreneur, the founder of Electrolux. He owned a munitions company, Bofors, that sold arms to Germany, and he was the subject of numerous intelligence reports that crossed the desks of government officials in Washington and Whitehall.